What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?


Here at PhilosophyOfReligion.org we are hosting an ongoing discussion by philosophers of religion about philosophy of religion. Our first blog series asked simply, “What is philosophy of religion?”; and our second series inquired, “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” Our third discussion focuses on the values and norms that define excellence in our field. What qualities or characteristics make a work in philosophy of religion worthy of being read, re-read, and criticized by fellow philosophers of religion? What, in fact, do we most admire in the work of others, and what ought we to most admire? Is rigorous argumentation the be-all and end-all of philosophy of religion, or are other values also important, such as multidisciplinarity, adequacy to the diversity of living religions, sensitivity to the existential dimension of religion, etc.?

The norms and values that define excellence in an inquiry not only specify the conditions for successful, progressive inquiry, but also implicitly define the goals of the inquiry itself. Is the purpose of philosophy of religion to explain religious phenomena, to criticize and/or defend religious ideas through argumentation, to gain wisdom about the good life through the study of human religions, or something else? Through an analysis of philosopher’s answers to our question about norms and values, we hope to surface some of the diverse views of the goal of philosophy of religion that are prevalent in the field. Once our analysis of the discussion is complete, we’ll present our findings on this website.

In the meantime, we invite you to read the blog entries and learn from experts who work in the field about the values and norms that define philosophy of religion.

David Rohr is a PhD candidate at Boston University’s Graduate Division of Religious Studies, and editor of PhilosophyOfReligion.org; Wesley J. Wildman is a philosopher of religion working at Boston University, and founder of PhilosophyOfReligion.org.

Rolf Ahlers on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Rolf Ahlers is the Reynolds Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Russell Sage College. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The question is both modern and most ancient. Religion expresses finite subjects’ concern with the infinite, the Greek a-peiron, literally “the unbound”. It is since Anaximander the arche, the origin of all. Its normative, evaluative “truth”, a-letheia, literally “without forgetfulness”, necessarily remains veiled, occluded, hidden: disclosure renders it finite, thereby falsifying, hiding it. Infinity is archeologically self-sufficient, self-evident and self-justifying. It is at odds with justifying proof, a lower form of reason known in classical German philosophy as Verstand, understanding. Truth’s self-justifying infinite is therefore “known” only immediately through intuition or “faith” without the mediation of rational verification. But self-justifying infinity, the hen, the one of the hen kai pan, justifies the pan, all of determinate finitude. Christian theology knows it as “justification through grace”. Hegel said of Spinoza’s pantheist substance one must “bathe oneself” in it: Immediately known truth, also known since antiquity as “light”, is identified as higher Vernunft, reason, that enlightens both itself as also the false. It is therefore first and foremost evaluative or normative. Giordano Bruno sees it as the occhio della raggione, the eye of reason. Enlightening reason, the criterion of the true and the false, is therefore the objective and normative basis of “reality”, and yes, subjectivity can participate in it, although with difficulty. The American Spiritual knows this: “You can’t get to heaven on roller-skates”. You have to work hard to get to heaven. It is an endless, really impossible task. Grace is a gift. Normative truth is autonomous, simple and not composed, but its “world” is complex: Simple infinity and worldly complexity are coinciding opposites that imply necessary contradiction. No (infinite) soul, Leibniz said, is ever without (finite) embodiment on an endless scale of perception ranging from most to least perfection and harmony: theodiceic normativity coordinates most with least reasonableness: a coincidence of opposites – Nicholas of Cusa. The chorismos, chasm between infinity and finite outlined here far too briefly is an expression of both popular and theoretical skepsis regarding the reality of the external world that dominated all of western thought, despite Burnyeat. Skepsis, i.e. attempts to resolve conflicts between different explanations or theories, and their predictive power based on empirical evidence, is the “negative side” of normative philosophy (Hegel) and must therefore tolerate contradiction in reality which skepticism does not tolerate. Skepsis, part of true philosophy’s evaluative work, is not skepticism. Skepticism, both ancient and modern, dogmatically asserts the need for the absence of contradiction while simultaneously asserting no less dogmatically as empty dogma truth’s self-assertion, i.e. truth’s self-justification. True skepsis opposes any and all dogmatism. Skepsis, the justifying work of philosophy, tolerates contradiction in reality. Philosophy of religion expresses this provocatively in the words ho logos sarx egeneto. It states that all that is finite is fallible, not sui-sufficient and must perish but is not without hope. Hegel points to Spinoza’s self-justifying, evaluative thought and its relation to extension: finite entities are always dependent on other entities and require the concursus Dei, God’s assistance: For Spinoza all dependent objects are contained within the infinite. That is a metaphysical assumption that he has prodigiously argued. It means: contrary to finite entities, that all require other finite bodies to exist and “must perish”, they are viewed by Spinoza sub specie aeternitatis. But that has consequences for extending entities that we call “bodies”: There is a contradiction between looking at finite entities with or without that divine assistance. But this is an expression of that ancient skepsis (not skepticism!) about the reality of the external world at the threshold of modernity, a skepsis that produces the need to argue and justify these issues: They are not obvious. Sub specie aeternitatis finitude is rooted in metaphysical eternity which is, however precisely because of its pantheist infinity enclosing all and is never disembodied. That means finite entities are real only in a contradictory way. Skepticism hopes to eliminate all contradictions. such as, for example, asserting as valid both A=A which means that A=A cannot simultaneously be identical to A=B and A≠B. All finite human beings have infinite dignity, a metaphysical proposition – “John is a human being, A=A, i.e. he has infinite dignity, A=B”. But as finite human beings, the criminal – “John the criminal and has only finite, not infinite dignity, A≠B”. Predictive positive science that is empirically adequate, internally coherent, and broadly applicable does not tolerate the contradiction between asserting both A=B and A≠B. For such science does not tolerate metaphysical assumptions, seeking only secular norms. It should be added the need for consistence, coherence and predictability of judgment was asserted already by Plato who, however, also argued against that perspective coherence and the need to tolerate contradiction and incoherence. This is nothing new. But our culture, dedicated to anti-metaphysical secular science seeking seamless coherence faintly remembers the (metaphysical) grounds for asserting both A=B and A≠B. Our laws insist on inalienable human dignity in the refugee, patient, the criminal and the prisoner of war. But the quest for coherence no longer tolerates the fertile, normative grounds of an intellectual culture that has produced those cultural convictions. In sum, coherence, lack of inconsistencies and contradiction and predictability of the outcomes of theoretical assumptions based on empirical evidence can be affirmed by the major thinkers mentioned here only in the context of their assertion of the basic normativity of truth. Traditional metaphysical assumptions are not empty verbiage: Classical thinkers could spot the empty talker with unerring certainty. Socrates’ many conversation partners such as Callicles in the Gorgias often turned out to do little more than spout empty words. Callicles aims at practicality and applicability. “You must be practical” he tells Socrates. “If not, you will stand there like a fool with an open mouth not knowing how defend yourself. Not only will you look foolish with your incoherent stammering. You will endanger your life: If you lack the practical tools of logical arguments in a court of law where someone has unjustly accused you, you might well be condemned to death for a deed you did not commit.” Jesus, accused unjustly for crimes he did not commit, stands like a fool before Pilate who urges him to be practical and defend himself. Jesus, the light that enlightens not only God’s truth but also the world’s darkness, remains silent like a fool. He is most impractical.

Tim Mawson on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Tim Mawson is Edgar Jones Fellow and Tutor at St. Peter’s College, University of Oxford. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

My answer would be that the norms governing the Philosophy of X are that one should be reaching important truth (and avoiding important falsehood) via good argument(s) about X. When X takes the value of Religion, the focus is on the issue of whether or not there’s a God.

Robert C. Neville on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Robert C. Neville is Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology at Boston University. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The primary instances of excellent philosophy of religion come from thinkers who have philosophies that say something important about religion. Think of Hobbes, Locke, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Schleiermacher, Schelling, Peirce, James, Whitehead, and Dewey from the modern Western tradition. These are the people we teach in historically oriented courses in philosophy of religion (along with classical and medieval thinkers, and sometimes representatives of South and East Asian religions). Secondary instances of excellent philosophy of religion come from thinkers who study aspects of religion alone, or mostly alone. I hold that there are four main norms or values defining excellence in primary philosophy of religion.

The first norm is systematic comprehensiveness in relating the many aspects of religion to each other and to everything else. Religion is so complex that no consensus exists as to how to define it, and excellent philosophy of religion needs to show how this complexity relates to the many other things a philosophy should treat. It is fairly obvious that excellent philosophy of religion should treat the nature of ultimate reality or realities and show how various parts of religion engage this. Also, excellent philosophy of religion needs to relate to epistemology so as to interpret cognitive aspects of religion, to morality to interpret how obligation lies, or does not lie, within religion, to psychology and other aspects of selfhood so as to relate to the religious quest for wholeness or alleviation of suffering, to social organization to treat that aspect of religion, to politics, jurisprudence, economics, education, art, and all those other “philosophy of …” topics as they relate to religion. To do all this, excellent philosophy of religion needs to be philosophically systematic, and many models of system exist even if system is not popular in philosophy today.

The second norm is that excellent philosophy of religion needs is to operate out of a base of comparative erudition. Most (though not all) of the thinkers I mentioned above operated out of a Western, if not generally Christian or deist, religious agenda, which biases philosophical study of other religions. Enough scholarly work has been done on most of the world’s religions for them to be brought into comparative connections. The nature of religious and theological comparison itself is a major topic within philosophy of religion today. Comparative philosophical inquiry is also part of philosophy of religion. Some comparisons are detailed and precise. Others are vaguer though still important. For instance, we know now that West Asian religions often develop conceptions of ultimacy out of symbols of persons, emphasizing heightened intentionality, agency, rationality, and will. South Asian religions often develop conceptions of ultimacy out of symbols of persons, but by eliminating just those aspects of intentionality, agency, rationality and will preferred in West Asia and emphasizing purified consciousness. East Asian religions explicitly reject personal models of ultimacy and instead develop symbols of spontaneous emergence. To be sure, many cross-overs and internal variations exist, and excellent philosophy of religion needs to operate out of erudite consciousness of these differences, variations, and counter-influences.

The third norm is that excellent philosophy of religion should seek understanding of the various aspects of religion, how they hang together (or do not hang together), and how they relate to the rest of reality. I mean to contrast understanding as grasping things in relation with explanation as showing how some aspect of religion reduces to something else, for instance evolutionary adaptability, psychological structures, or social legitimation. To be sure, aspects of religion are related to one another and to non-religious things causally sometimes and, in these instances, explanation is to be subsumed into understanding by excellent philosophy of religion. Nevertheless, causal relations are better treated as relations than as reductions because the “effect” in the relation might very well be the effect of many other things with respect to which it is also related. Understanding of an aspect of religion involves comprehending how it stands in relation to all the things to which it is related, and seeing also how it harmonizes (or fails to harmonize) those many relations within itself. No aspect of religion, or religion as a whole if there is such a thing, can be understood only in terms of its relations to other things: understanding something involves knowing how it harmonizes its relations to have its own being.

Wesley Wildman has argued that philosophy of religion is comparative, multidisciplinary inquiry; see his Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future for the Philosophy of Religion (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2010). My second norm for comparative erudition and third norm for understanding the complexities of religion express my agreement. More than Wildman, however, I stress the need for integration and system as expressed in my first norm.

The fourth norm for excellent philosophy of religion is that it should provide philosophic guidance for how to live in the various aspects of religion. I group these aspects into three main kinds. The first are cognitive aspects of religion, and therefore philosophy of religion needs to include philosophical theology, broadly considered; philosophy of religion should not pretend to be a study of beliefs only, but also of their merit. The second are existential aspects whereby individuals’ and groups’ most basic identity is determined religiously, and therefore philosophy of religion needs to include understanding of how people are defined religiously, well-defined, not poorly defined. The third are the practical, institutional, organizational, artistic, and spiritual aspects of religion; philosophy of religion needs to understand how to live well in all these aspects of religion.

In sum, the four norms I think should constrain excellent philosophy of religion are comprehensiveness within a system of philosophy that treats religion, erudition in comparative matters of religion and philosophy/theology, understanding as a mode of knowledge rather than explanation of religion in terms of something else, and philosophic guidance in religious matters.

Evan Fales on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Evan Fales is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Iowa. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

There are two rather disparate matters that I’d like to draw attention to. One is a properly philosophical concern; it touches the business of explanation in theism, and the metaphysics of causation. So it falls fairly easily within the range of topics the blog is meant to address. The second matter does so a bit less naturally: it concerns what makes one a good philosopher of religion, rather than what makes for good philosophy of religion; in particular, it touches on the public role of philosophers of religion.

Now it doesn’t seem to me that there is very much that is distinctively good-making in work in philosophy of religion, apart from those virtues that make for good philosophy generally. But there is an issue that arises rather peculiarly in philosophy of religion, inasmuch as most religions posit the existence of disembodied persons – gods, spirits, souls, angels and demons, and a bouquet of other non-material denizens of the supernatural world. And these denizens are supposed to do things: there are ways in which the world is visibly different, in consequence of their actions. Their activities, in a word, are supposed to explain some things that happen – including, sometimes, things that couldn’t happen, but for their agency.

The question is: how do they manage it? The question becomes especially sharp when the agency in question is, ultimately at least, a single agent, whose performances explain, completely or in part, a great deal – perhaps even “everything.” My complaint is simply that, in the latter case especially, the answer too often is that the being in question is omnipotent.

But this is simply to put a label on what needs to be understood. (Indeed, it has proved to be devilishly hard even to provide a general specification or definition of what omnipotence amounts to.) My concern is with the nuts and bolts of this explanatory, or causal, relation. There has been, to be sure, a fair amount of literature of late about the possibility of an immaterial being causing matter to move, in the case of miracles. But it is all too common to find philosophers invoking “omnipotence,” as if that itself answers to the explanatory need. It does not; it merely attaches a label to what wants to be understood.

Perhaps the most plausible attempt (that I know of) to fill the gap is Robert John Russell’s suggestion that God is, in effect, the “hidden variable” that settles all indeterminacy when a quantum superposition state collapses into an eigenvalue – and God can co-ordinate eigenvalues so that something physically extraordinary happens, without violation of energy and momentum conservation. This might be promising – if we could understand how God effects such controlled wave-function collapses – and how such controlled collapses actually could effect, e.g., the near-instant turning of water into wine.

For the most part, we philosophers don’t concern ourselves too much about such arcane matters, but, for my part, it seems that that’s the first question that must be resolved if we are to entertain the explanatory power of supernatural agency. Of course, it is always open to one to just posit some kind of causal or quasi-causal relation between God and the quantum world that allows God to do the job. We invoke theoretical posits all the time; why not posit a new fundamental relation? Fair enough: but – certainly in this case – the relation would be unusual enough, significantly enough disanalogous to anything in ordinary experience, that we should be anxious to discover whether such a relation could be coherently posited, and whether it would be physically possible for an immaterial, and arguably atemporal, being to stand in such a relation to fundamental particles of matter. Lacking such control, the supernatural becomes, religiously speaking, pretty much a dead letter.

There is considerably more that might be said about this first matter, but let me turn to the second; and here I have in mind in particular the contemporary cultural terrain in the US, though my remarks will have quite general application. Philosophers of religion, perhaps as much as those in any of philosophy’s sub-disciplines, have things to say on matters of existential importance to a great many people. So it is no accident that we have been drawn into the tides of cultural debate and, indeed, political division. It is also no accident – and perhaps equally unfortunate – that the psychological forces that lure us into forming views with a strength of certainty that outstrips available evidence are equally pervasive in religion and in the political arena. Philosophers are not immune to these forces, nor, disconcertingly, are they always immune to the temptations of animus that animate so many political and religious disagreements.

We have, surely, a responsibility to wield such wisdom as we may have with grace – more grace than our public arena seems, for the most part, to support. Partly this involves, or should involve, a sense of intellectual humility. How sure do we deserve to be, really, that we’ve got things right? We may have a far more nuanced view of complex issues and difficult problems than many others; but how much distance in the journey to knowledge have we really travelled?

There is, however, a deeper issue that I want to engage. It is pertinent in three arenas in our philosophical lives: the classroom, if we inhabit the academy, the community of fellow-philosophers, and the broader community with which we publically engage. I have in mind something familiar and simple: friendship. Friendship, as I see it, is both a social virtue (as is obvious) and an intellectual one – if only because, at minimum, the capacity for friendship requires an ability to discern and navigate another’s inner world: how they are feeling, what they think and why, what their lived experience of the world is and has been. That kind of understanding goes well beyond – though it certainly demands – the effort to grasp another’s system of beliefs and the outlook they generate. The “something more” that I have particularly in mind is a genuine feeling of empathy, a desire, not only to grasp the views of another, but to grasp what it’s like to see and feel things from their perspective. Though this can be distinguished from sheer intellectual penetration, it is, in my view, one of the most powerful tools that human sensibility has for real insight into and appreciation of another’s point of view.

This is perhaps platitudinous. But it’s my perception that this kind of empathic insight is in rather short supply, even among academics who sit on opposite sides of the various aisles that criss-cross the theological terrain, to say nothing of the general public. And this at a time when real geniality is so badly needed. Too often I’ve seen, and am probably unthinkingly guilty myself, of a kind of obdurate inability or disinclination to allow that an opposing position might be worthy of serious entertainment or another’s heartfelt devotion. Sometimes intellectual progress emerges from heated debate. But often, the most significant illumination emerges, in quieter fashion, in open exchanges between good friends who differ but treasure one another. We can become better philosophers of religion by becoming better friends.

Steven M. Cahn on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Steven M. Cahn is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Relatively few philosophers specialize in the philosophy of religion, but many teach an introductory problems course in which one usual topic is the existence of God. The routine approach is to present and assess the three traditional arguments for the existence of God. Then the focus shifts to the problem of evil, after which the unit on God’s existence ends.

My new book RELIGION WITHIN REASON (Columbia University Press 2017) suggests that this approach often takes place within a set of misleading assumptions that may be shared by students and faculty members. One of these assumptions is that if God’s existence were disproved, then religious commitment would have been shown to be unreasonable. Various religions, however, reject the notion of a supernatural God. These include Jainism, Theravada Buddhism, Mimamsa and Samkhya Hinduism, as well as Reconstructionist Judaism and “death of God” versions of Christianity.

Here, for example, is how Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, an opponent of supernaturalism, responds to a skeptic who asks why, if the Bible isn’t taken literally, Jews should nevertheless observe the Sabbath: “We observe the Sabbath not so much because of the account of its origin in Genesis, as because of the role it has come to play in the spiritual life of our People and of mankind…The Sabbath day sanctifies our life by what it contributes to making us truly human and helping us transcend those instincts and passions that are part of our heritage from the sub-human.”1

And here from one of the major figures in the Christian “Death of God” movement, the Anglican Bishop of Woolwich John A. T. Robinson, who denies the existence of a God “up there,” or “out there,” is an account of the Holy Communion: “ [T]oo often…it ceases to be the holy meal, and becomes a religious service in which we turn our backs on the common and the community and in individualistic devotion go to ‘make our communion with God out there.’ This is the essence of the religious perversion, when worship becomes a realm into which to withdraw from the world to ‘be with God’—even if it is only to receive strength to go back into it. In this case the entire realm of the non-religious (in other words ‘life’) is relegated to the profane.”2

Of course, a naturalistic religion can also be developed without deriving it from a supernatural religion. Consider, for example, the outlook of philosopher Charles Frankel, another opponent of supernaturalism, who nevertheless believes that religion, shorn of irrationality, can make a distinctive contribution to human life, providing deliverance from vanity, triumph over meanness, and endurance in the face of tragedy. As he puts it, “it seems to me not impossible that a religion could draw the genuine and passionate adherence of its members while it claimed nothing more than to be poetry in which [people] might participate and from which they might draw strength and light.”3

Such naturalistic options are philosophically respectable. Whether to choose any of them is for each person to decide.

Teachers and students should also recognize that theism does not imply religious commitment. After all, even if someone believes that one or more of the proofs for God’s existence is sound, the question remains whether to join a religion and, if so, which one. The proofs contain not a clue as to which religion, if any, is favored by God. Indeed, God may oppose all religious activity. Perhaps God does not wish to be prayed to, worshipped, or adored, and might even reward those who shun such activities.

Yet another misleading assumption is implicit in the definitions which are usually offered: a theist believes in God, an atheist disbelieves in God, and an agnostic neither believes or disbelieves in God. Notice that the only hypothesis being considered is the existence of God as traditionally conceived; no other supernatural alternatives are taken seriously. But why not?

Suppose, for example, the world is the scene of a struggle between God and the Demon. Both are powerful, but neither is omnipotent. When events go well, God’s benevolence is ascendant; when events go badly, the Demon’s malevolence is ascendant. Is this doctrine, historically associated width Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism, unnecessarily complex and therefore to be rejected? No, for even though in one sense it is more complex than monotheism, because it involves two supernatural beings rather than one, in another sense it is simpler, because it leaves no aspect of the world beyond human understanding. After all, theism faces the problem of evil, while dualistic hypotheses have no difficulty accounting for both good and evil.

In sum, I would suggest that both faculty members and students should remember the following four essential points: (1) belief in the existence of God is not a necessary condition for religious commitment; (2) belief in the existence of God is not a sufficient condition for religious commitment; (3) the existence of God is not the only supernatural hypothesis worth serious discussion; and (4) a successful defense of traditional theism requires not only that it be more plausible than atheism or agnosticism but that it be more plausible than all other supernatural alternatives.

I am not suggesting, of course, that the proofs for the existence of God or the problem of evil not be taught. I am urging, however, that all participants be alerted to the limited implications of that discussion.

1. Mordecai M. Kaplan, Judaism Without Supernaturalism (New York: Reconstructionist Press, 1958), 115-116.
2. John A.T. Robinson, Honest to God (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963), 86-87.
3. Charles Frankel, The Love of Anxiety, and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 1962.

Douglas Groothuis on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Douglas Groothuis is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

By philosophy of religion I mean the intellectual discipline of critically evaluating religious truth claims, whether individual propositions or propositional systems (or worldviews). This discipline may be self-standing, as in a philosophy of religion course at a college or university, or it may involve bringing religious assertions to bear on other disciplines, such as political theory, aesthetics, or psychology. For example, a lecture, class, or academic paper might engage how Judaism has shaped Western liberal traditions concerning religious liberty and property.

Let me illustrate this from an undergraduate class I taught at a secular university. In addressing questions of meaning and morality, I offered a theistic perspective by way of arguments. I later found—after students complained to the head of the Philosophy department—that I was accused of pushing religion in class. I really was not; rather, I was doing philosophy of religion in response to some perennial philosophical questions. These students apparently did not know there was such a thing as philosophy of religion. For them, religion was only about belief and preaching, not arguments. Of course, they were wrong; and I was asked to teach another class the next term. I take from this that doing good philosophy of religion may involve justifying the discipline as an intellectually legitimate means for testing and applying religious truth claims.

But what constitutes a virtuous pursuit of knowledge in this discipline? Philosophy of religion, like all intellectual disciplines, should be, at minimum, characterized by these values.

1. Obscurity is not usually profundity, especially not in philosophy. Whatever issues are at hand should be addressed with conceptual clarity. This requires a clear use of key terms (providing definitions, if needed). While philosophy of religion need not aspire to the analytical precision of Alvin Plantinga or Keith Yandel, it should not leave the reader lost in the mists of ill-defined terms and puzzling sentences.

2. The golden rule belongs to philosophy of religion as to everything else. Just as we are troubled when our arguments are misrepresented and wish this were not the case, so should we go the second mile in making sure that we represent all views fairly and accurately. Some of my wife’s careful arguments on the philosophy of gender in relation to religion have been made into straw men by a number of men and women. It hurts and it is wrong.

3. Philosophy is about arguments, and arguments come in various general forms: induction, deduction, abduction (or best explanation), and for the stouthearted, Bayesian probabilities. Good writing in the philosophy of religion–or any kind of philosophy–will identify argument forms. In some cases, the same conclusion flows from two different formulations of an argument. Writers should not overburden the reader by making them wonder exactly what is being argued for and how.

4. Arguments should anticipate rebuttal. It is not enough to argue that P is true and leave it at that. The philosopher should consider the relevant arguments against P in order to weigh its merits. Thomas Aquinas left us with the developed form of this back-and-forth model for discourse. We need not copy his style, but we should not forget his method.

5. Clichés or taken-for-granted ideas in the philosophy of religion sometimes need to be challenged or refuted. Philosophy is not insulated from intellectual fashions or groupthink. For example, Descartes is usually credited as influential in philosophy (sometimes called “the father of modern philosophy”), but his arguments for God’s existence are often ignored or given short shrift. When a reviewer of one of my books found that I had carefully formulated and approved of one of his theistic arguments, he or she simply said, “Philosophers don’t accept this anymore.” So what? Let us give it a try. One needs either to show that one or more of the premises are wrong or that the argument form is faulty. Otherwise, there is no counter-argument.

Even Descartes’ stated method for philosophical argument has its merits for philosophy of religion, although I will not elaborate on them. In Discourse on Method, he presents four “precepts of logic” which he resolves never to violate: (1) to believe nothing except what is clear and distinct, (2) to divide up problems into appropriate parts, (3) to proceed from the simple to the complex, and (4) to make sure nothing is left out.

6. Philosophy of religion should not shy away from prudential concerns concerning religious doctrines. If nirvana is the highest state of being, what existential difference would this make? If the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation are logically coherent, should this encourage one to consider Christianity more carefully? As philosopher Mortimer J. Adler said, “More consequences for life and action follow from the affirmation or denial of God than from any other basic question.” If the Confucian idea of propriety is a fitting way to comport oneself in family and society, how would this affect one’s manners, customs, and even voting? And so on.

7. Philosophers of religion should seek to be involved in settings in which proponents of different religions discuss the rationality of each other’s truth claims. This happens often with Christians and atheists, but there is no reason it should not extend to Muslims and Buddhists or Jews and Hindus, etc. These exchanges—which may be debates or dialogues, written or oral—help prevent misunderstanding and ignorance of each religion’s respective positions.

These seven values do not exhaust the treasury of epistemic virtue, but I take them to be vital for intellectual engagement in the philosophy of religion. I look forward to seeing what others deem worthy.

Neil A. Manson on “What Norms or Values Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Neil A. Manson is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Mississippi. We invited him to answer the question “What norms or values define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

I will restrict my comments to the analytic approach to philosophy. I will also modify the question in a slight but significant way to “What personal norms or values should guide philosophers of religion?” That is, I will talk about desirable qualities in the people who do philosophy of religion rather than in the output they produce.

As philosophers, philosophers of religion ought to follow the standard norms of the field. They ought to be precise and rigorous logically, helping themselves to a toolkit including propositional logic, quantifier logic, modal logic, probability theory, set theory, and so on. They ought to be interdisciplinary, incorporating (when appropriate) physical science, social science, and history. And they ought to be intradisciplinary, integrating in their own work the best from the full array of relevant philosophical subdisciplines: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, philosophy of mind and language, history of philosophy, and so on. But those familiar with the subdiscipline “philosophy of religion” will probably recognize that, by and large, these norms are, indeed, followed. Pick up any recent book in philosophy of religion. Sprinkled throughout it you will likely see some combination of formal logical proofs, universal quantifiers, diamond operators, probability calculations, and citations of various scientific papers. In that regard, it will be hard to distinguish a philosophy of religion book from one in any other area of philosophy. Adhering to these norms thus in no way makes philosophers of religion distinctive within philosophy. Doing these things is just a precondition for doing good philosophy. Are there any, more distinctive norms that ought to guide philosophers of religion?

To answer this, we must recognize a crucial fact about philosophy of religion’s place both in philosophy more broadly and in academia as a whole. Within philosophy, philosophers of religion are regarded with considerable suspicion. Since the reasons for that are pretty widely discussed amongst philosophers of religion, especially amongst newly-minted Ph.D.s and their advisers, I will not rehearse them here. I want to focus on how analytic philosophers of religion relate to the rest of their colleagues across the university.

If we list standard subfields of philosophy, we will find that some have no non-philosophy rivals for the attention of their subject matters. For example, most metaphysical questions are ones no one else in the academic world is addressing. None but metaphysicians are trying to figure out the nature of modality, of abstract objects, of causation, of time, or of personal identity. [Some would say that this is not a virtue of metaphysicians but rather a reason to be suspicious of them.] But for many subfields, there are fields outside of philosophy addressing the same subject. For example, philosophers of mind both compete and cooperate with psychologists, brain scientists, linguists, and computer scientists in the effort to understand the mind. And philosophers of mind (for the most part) seek concordance with their non-philosopher academic counterparts. Infrequent exceptions aside, philosophers of mind try to stay abreast of and in step with developments in those other fields. And sometimes the scholars in those other fields will appeal to the work of philosophers of mind. The same is true of most other “philosophers of” – philosophers of biology, philosophers of language, philosophers of physics, and so on. They are part of a larger academic community, with a distinctive approach but overlapping goals.

The situation with philosophers of religion seems to me to be significantly different. Currently, philosophy of religion is the only field in the humanities and social sciences in which religious beliefs are often treated as matters of reason and evidence – as if they might be true. It is the only academic subdiscipline in which there are serious arguments in the current scholarly literature concerning the existence of God, the nature of God, the afterlife, the soul, and so on. Whatever one thinks of the merits of those arguments, they played (and still play) a crucial role in the religious, social, political, scientific, and intellectual life of the world. For example, one cannot really understand significant aspects of modern science without understanding the belief that reason and empirical evidence show that the entire universe was created and designed by God, and that God intended for us to understand God’s plan. But one cannot understand that belief without understanding both the Cosmological and Design arguments. While they may have been wrong, the religious figures who thought reason and science were on the side of their faith really did think it. Likewise, Calvinists and Arminians really did think one side was right and the other wrong, and they thought reasoned arguments could be offered to support their favored position and refute the position they opposed.

Yet approaching religious beliefs as if it they might be true or false is something that almost never happens nowadays in non-philosophy disciplines. In the fields of religion/religious studies, sociology, anthropology, history and literature – and even in some seminaries and divinity schools – religion is by and large approached from a postmodernist perspective. Religious beliefs and practices are viewed as encoding power relationships amongst races, classes, and genders. Religions are interesting for what they tell us about those relationships. In evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, religious beliefs are treated either as adaptations or as spandrels, benefitting the biological fitness either of the individual or the group. In both cases, it is just a presumption – an explicit methodological presumption at best and an unexamined dogma at worst – that people do not hold to religious belief X because X is true, probably true, or more likely to be true than Y. [If you see the word “true” used in these fields, there is a good chance there will be quotation marks around it.] For example, in these fields, no part of the explanation for why, historically, monotheism has tended to supplant polytheism is that it is quite reasonable to think monotheism is more likely to be true than polytheism, or that the arguments for monotheism are objectively more persuasive than those for polytheism.

This blog is not the place to judge whether this enormous difference in methodological presuppositions indicates a defect in philosophy of religion or rather in the other disciplines just mentioned. [In my own view, while those taking a postmodernist or an evolutionary approach to religion succeed in identifying many very important aspects of religion, they also often ignore other important aspects of religion. See my “Religion and Metaphysical Naturalism” in *The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy of Religion*, 2015). The point is just that the philosopher of religion is a serious outlier within academia. The typical philosopher of mind is likely to find a sympathetic audience, and possibly actual collaborators, in the psychology department or the neuroscience program. Likewise with philosophy of language, philosophy of science, and so on. In all those cases, there are points of collaboration, possibilities for joint degree programs, and even opportunities for joint academic appointments. In contrast, the philosophers of religion are quite likely to find themselves in a chilly (if not flat-out adversarial) relationship with their colleagues who study religion for a living. If you are a philosopher of religion, do not expect the members of the other fields mentioned to have much interest in your research, the speakers you bring in, or the questions you think are important. Do not expect to find a shared sense that you are all participating in different ways in the same larger project. The methodological and cultural gap between analytic philosophy of religion and these other disciplines is just too great.

So, what personal values ought to guide analytic philosophers of religion? Fortitude is one. If you are the only philosopher of religion on a typical college campus in the English-speaking world, be prepared to be a solitary figure. You can assume that, if your colleagues outside of philosophy have any idea of what you do, they think it is largely or completely a waste of time – something that has nothing to do with the actual understanding of religion. Congeniality is another value to cultivate. If you want the colleagues outside of your department to identify with and support you and what you do, you will have to sell yourself and your work to them. You cannot just expect them to understand what you do or see the value in it. Have a story ready to go explaining why what you do is important. Doctoral programs train their graduates to pitch what they do to other philosophers – to people on hiring committees, most notably. But if you are a philosopher of religion and you want to flourish at your school, you need a sales pitch for the non-philosophers, too. Finally, convey humility. If you are an analytic philosopher of religion, in graduate school you probably learned to disdain the sorts of approaches to religious belief I have discussed. Drop the disdain (or hide it, at least). Not only is it counterproductive, but it alienates people with whom you might work and from whom you can learn.

Rem B. Edwards on “What Values or Norms Define Excellent Philosophy of Religion?”

Rem B. Edwards is the Lindsay Young Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Tennessee. We invited him to answer the question “What values or norms define excellent philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

An excellent philosophy of religion is one that results from the efforts of excellent philosophers of religion, so my approach focuses on the ideal good-making properties of philosophers of religion.

(1) They aspire to fulfill credible criteria for any plausible rational theology or belief system. They apply rational criteria of explanatory adequacy such as logical consistency, coherence with other reasonable beliefs, simplicity without sacrificing comprehensiveness, clarity, fruitfulness for further inquiry, fairness or impartiality of judgment, freedom from external and internal non-rational pressures, and conformity with experience. “Experience” is broadly construed to include sensory, introspective, religious, aesthetic, moral, logical, and mathematical intuitive givenness.

(2) They search for religious views that are compatible with and not falsified by the structure of the world disclosed by natural science, which is itself constantly evolving. Natural science does not dictate the contents of a rational philosophy of religion, but it rules out many familiar religious beliefs and traditional cosmological convictions as unviable and untenable. For example, rational persons cannot accept a literal six days of creation in the face of astronomy and paleontology, cannot reject evolution in the face of biology, and cannot affirm rigid and universal determinism in the face of quantum physics. Excellent philosophers of religion reject the ideas that Adam and Eve once literally existed in an idyllic Garden of Eden, and that anything of any theological importance depends upon their having so existed. They cannot affirm that death originated as a consequence of human misbehavior, since organisms were dying for eons of time before human beings evolved. Being compatible with natural science is not the same as being proved by natural science. The philosophy of religion aspires to philosophical proof, evidence, and reason-giving in a very broad sense, not to empirical or sensory inductive evidence alone.

(3) They try to provide some plausible and coherent account of the immediate and the ultimate meanings and values of human life, indeed of all life and all of existence. Their accounts should be firmly grounded in and compatible with scientific knowledge and critical rational reflection, as well as with our most profound religious, moral, and aesthetic sensitivities.

(4) They strive for positive valuational and ontological results that go beyond negative critiques. They strive to help “real people” (philosophers included) find reasonable and defensible religious views that they can actually affirm and live by and with, always subject to improvement. Destructive philosophizing is easy; constructive philosophizing is much more difficult. The best philosophers of religion venture both constructive results or conclusions and destructive critiques of alternatives. High creativity transcending what has gone before will be involved in reaching constructive religious results. We want the most reasonable religious (and overall) approximation to definitive truth we can get that will help us live moral, spiritual, and conceptually meaningful lives.

(5) They recognize that rational persuasion is a significant way of respecting others, and that it is morally preferable to settling religious disagreements in non-rational ways such as social ostracism, political exile, threats, intimidations, purely emotionalistic appeals, coercion, torture, brainwashing, deceit, and bombastic rhetoric. Rational excellence in religious thinking (and elsewhere) is a moral solution to a moral problem.

(6) They develop and utilize their critical as well as their constructive capacities. Excellent critical philosophizing does not apply exclusively to pro-religious affirmations, whatever these might be. Critical thinking applies equally to anti-religious perspectives, whatever these might be—atheism, agnosticism, positivism, wholesale skepticism, or whatever. What are their basic assumptions, and are they rationally justified? Wholesale skepticism has never completed its work until all of its resources have been turned in upon itself.

(7) They are constantly aware of human limitations, which apply to the whole enterprise of philosophy. A large place is made for honest disagreement. We are now (and always?) far removed from those religious and all other philosophical beliefs on which all competent rational persons are ultimately destined to agree. All philosophers eventually just run out of reasons and evidence-giving procedures and reach “rock bottom,” where intuitions of some kind take over. Regrettably, not all competent rational authorities reach the same rock bottom intuitions. Every thought system, religious or otherwise, includes some essential convictions that cannot be proved without circularity within that system, or elsewhere. Philosophical problems may be infinite, but philosophical procedures are always finite. Rationality applied to all religious and philosophical problems is simply not powerful enough to bring all competent rational authorities into complete intersubjective agreement, however desirable that might be. This is a limitation of all of philosophy, not peculiarity of the philosophy of religion.

I have long maintained that we can never hope for or expect anything more from any kind of philosophical excellence and efforts than an enlightened faith. Realistically, we will never have complete rational intersubjective agreement and certainty. (About that we can be almost certain.) Human rationality always functions somewhere between the extremes of absolutely conclusive “proof” and no proof at all. Of course, an enlightened faith is very different from, and much more desirable than, a blind faith, but variable basic human and personal values, as well as inescapable human historicity and unique personality differences, are always constitutive of anyone’s enlightened faith, which is always grounded by degrees in who we actually are and/or wish to become. Ultimately, after doing our very best, all of us just have to judge and decide for ourselves. Excellent philosophers of religion know this. Fallibilstic modesty is one of their intellectual virtues. They allow for honest intellectual doubt, disagreement, and growth.

(8) They recognize that the philosophy of religion is a value-laden enterprise through and through. This is most obvious, perhaps, in the idea of perfect spiritual excellence or supreme worshipfulness, as expressed, for example, in St. Anselm’s concept of “that being than whom none greater (better) can be conceived.” “Divine perfection” or “ultimate goodness” are axiological as well as ontological notions. Conceiving of ultimate perfection is always a valuational project, even if facts have some bearing. Excellent philosophers of religion recognize and analyze the values inherent in religion. They wonder what ultimate reality would have to be like in order to be supremely worthy of human worship, love, service, devotion, and ultimate concern. Until philosophers of religion reach agreement about what is ultimately admirable or valuable, they must agree to disagree about the perfect-making attributes of supreme reality, and about many other matters of religious concern. Their conceptions and preconceptions will occasionally yield to profound, novel, and ongoing enlightenment about and insight into supreme worshipfulness, goodness, and reality.

Gary Colwell on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

Gary Colwell is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Condordia University of Edmonton. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

What is Philosophy of Religion? An Almost Serious Approach

The title “Philosophy of Religion” has three words which, when examined closely, will reveal the meaning of the discipline to which the whole title refers. (Or perhaps not, as the case may be.) Let us first inspect the word “philosophy” and then the word “religion”. In the end we shall see that the little word “of” holds the key to the most useful definition of the title; for whatever “philosophy” and “religion” mean, we know right off that the title refers to a philosophy that belongs to, or is applied to, religion.

What is philosophy? Philosophy is a rational discipline from which we learn more and more about less and less until someday we know everything about nothing. Or going the other way, we learn less and less about more and more until someday we know nothing about everything. The crucial question arising from these two definitions is itself philosophical in nature. Which should you rather know: everything about nothing or nothing about everything? For the benefit of the conscientious reader there is a right answer to that question.

I faintly hear someone saying, “get serious!” OK, I will, but you won’t like it. What I’m going to offer you is a functional and compendious definition of philosophy that is not entirely serviceable. But a word of caution before you proceed. You mustn’t say this definition out loud for fear of frightening your dog or alienating your other friends, though interjecting it skilfully into a cocktail conversation among the literati will garner you a heap of praise. Here goes: Philosophy is a rational discipline in which careful attention to detail, logical thinking and imagination are used to question, describe, analyse and speculate upon the fundamental assumptions of our beliefs about reality or some limited aspect of it, while striving to be clear, truthful, consistent and reasonable in its spoken, unspoken and written accounts. Admittedly, that was a bit long. But how to shorten it without amputating some of its vital limbs – that is a vexing question. We do need to retain the ideas of both analytic and synthetic thinking, with the understanding that when we engage in such thinking we are asking questions as well as making statements. Perhaps we could employ the term synalytic thinking. On second thought, that would only complicate the issue and raise unnecessary additional questions. Let us, then, tentatively settle upon the following: philosophy is a rational discipline in which analytic and synthetic thinking are trained upon the fundamental assumptions of some aspect of the world, in this case, religion. But now we must ask, what in the world is a religion?

Defining “religion” is like trying to wallpaper an alligator. On the one hand it is tempting to say simply that a religion is a system of beliefs with god at its apex. But this would make the definition too narrow. It would eliminate Theravada Buddhism, the non-dualistic schools of Hinduism such as Advaita Vedanta, and various kinds of polytheism. Many systems of belief that are labelled “religion” do not posit the existence of one transcendent being that is thought to be worthy of worship. On the other hand one might modify one of Tillich’s ideas and say that religion is simply a belief system that organizes life around that which ultimately concerns some group of people. This, however, would include practically everything upon which we may set our highest interest and around which we can organize our lives, making the definition too broad.

Why, we may rightly ask, are all these different systems of belief called “a religion”? It’s as though a giant strode about the earth collecting one after another of these belief systems in a huge basket: B was included because it was somewhat like A; C was included because it was somewhat like B; D was included because it was somewhat like C; and so on to n-1 and n. But when the giant was done he looked in his basket and discovered that n had almost nothing in common with A. Unwittingly he had gathered his religions according to a “family resemblance” method of collection. But why did he collect A in the first place? I don’t know. Maybe it seemed like a good idea at the time. Or perhaps it was because the first system of belief he came across was focused upon a transcendent source that provided meaning for his life. Whatever the reason, his first and last collections had much less in common than his first and second collections.

Is there anything we can do to build a definition of religion that is both accurate and serviceable? One approach might be to “bite the bullet”; in other words, to go for the generality and live with the consequences. We could say that a religion is a life-guiding system of belief that often but not always has a transcendent being at its apex. We do catch communism with such a wide net, but then calling that particular belief system a religion is hardly a new idea, though admittedly communists have never liked it very much.

To avoid alienating some of our ideological colleagues, therefore, we could use the opposite approach by defining “religion” specifically, even ostensively. It is that religion, X, that I mean when I say “philosophy of religion”. And we can substitute for X any religion that holds our interest. But now rather than trying to define the “philosophy of religion” simpliciter, we will need to adjust the explanandum to read, for example, “the philosophy of Christianity”. It could as well be “the philosophy of Islam”.

Still, something doesn’t feel quite right about my attempt to define “Philosophy of Religion”. I seem to have knotted my thinking into a mental cramp. I have accomplished this by trying to make my definition of philosophy of religion at one and the same time general and specific, as well as concise and expansive; and I also want it to be portable, so to speak. What to do? The thought now occurs to me that there is no need to satisfy all these characteristics at one stroke. For where is it written that we must say everything about something at once? So let’s make another run at the definition and do it in stages. I’ll call this effort an engaging definition, for it is supposed to engage the reader or hearer to ask successively more specific questions about previously more general answers. It will involve a dialogue that goes something like this:

Q – What is Philosophy of Religion?
A – It is a rational discipline in which philosophical thinking is applied to a religion.
The results may be spoken, unspoken or written.
Q – Why do you say rational discipline?
A – Well, because reason and the imagination are used exclusively to practice it.
There are many kinds of discipline or areas of accomplishment that invite mastery; not all of them are exclusively or predominantly rational. Taekwando is one example.
Q – But that still doesn’t explain what philosophical thinking is.
A – True, but just ask me and I’ll be glad to explain.
Q – All right, what is it?
A – I thought you’d never ask. It is the kind of thinking that strives to be clear, truthful, logical and consistent in its spoken, unspoken and written accounts. It is typically argumentative, seeking to create sound arguments for certain ideational positions, arguments with true premises and valid conclusions.
Q – But aren’t these just the features you should expect to find in the conscientiously practiced disciplines of chemistry, psychology or art history?
A – Yes, but with this very important difference: philosophical thinking is trained upon foundational assumptions. Philosophers work in the basements of other disciplines. You know, where it’s dark and the mushrooms grow.
Q – Do you mean to say that philosophical thinking never leads anyone to build superstructures? They never construct anything above the basements?
A – Goodness, No! Much of philosophy has been and continues to be speculative. Indeed, there have been some grand systems of thought built during the history of philosophy. Yet their construction was begun only after their builders had created or uncovered those foundational assumptions upon which they thought their systems could be solidly built. And the destruction of these same systems was brought about at the same fundamental level when deep cracks were discovered in the ideational foundations.
Q – You said that philosophical thinking is applied to a religion. What religion are you referring to?
A – Pick any one you like. Take Christianity, for example. Some of its foundational assumptions are: God exists; God is triune; God created the world; God is love; Jesus is divine; Jesus rose from the dead; miracles occur or have occurred; there is an afterlife; and so on. These are some of the assumptions without which the religion called Christianity wouldn’t be what it is. When philosophical thinking is trained upon these foundational assumptions those who are engaged in such thinking are doing philosophy of the Christian religion.
Q – Surely a definition of “religion” ought to include more than one religion.
A – Actually it does, at least at first approximation. But it includes all of them only indefinitely, using the article “a” in the phrase “philosophical thinking applied to a religion”. If you want greater specificity then simply ask, as you did earlier, “what religion are you referring to”, and I shall answer just as I did before, “pick any one you like”. I could just as well have referred to Judaism or Islam, and we could just as easily have trained our philosophical thinking upon the foundational assumptions of either of them.
Q – You said that one of the foundational assumptions of Christianity is that God exists. Don’t all the Abrahamic religions have this as one of their assumptions? As the most important of all their common assumptions, doesn’t it unite all of them? They all believe in a supreme being, don’t they?
A – Yes they do, but here’s the catch. The devil is in the details…Let me rephrase that. The specific natures of the supreme beings in whom they believe are radically different from one another.
Q – How could that be? What can be more than supreme?
A – It is not the degree of greatness that is at issue but rather the degree of generality and vagueness. Let me ask you a question: what do a chair, a lamp and a coffee table have in common?
Q – Well, they have many things in common. For one, they are all solid objects. As well, they are all artefacts. Most obviously, I guess, they are all pieces of furniture.
A – Good. Now, what if I told you that a chair, a lamp and a coffee table are basically the same kind of object because they share in common the property of being a piece of furniture.
Q – I’d say you were daffy.
A – Why would you say that?
Q – Because the word “furniture” is just a collecting term, one that categorizes and holds together a number of objects or even types of objects found in buildings of various kinds. It’s just a shorthand way of speaking of a number of things in a spatial collection. There isn’t something in addition to the three objects you named that we can refer to and identify as furniture. The word isn’t even a quality term like “red”.
A – Precisely! And it’s for the same reason that we cannot say that the three Abrahamic religions worship basically the same god because their gods share in common the property of being a supreme being. Just as a chair, a lamp and a coffee table are radically different pieces of furniture so the gods of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are radically different gods, even though all three gods are supreme beings in the minds of their respective devotees. You might observe that a coffee table is more similar to a chair than it is to a lamp but this greater similarity would not diminish one bit the radical differences that exist between all of them. Nor does the observation that the triune god of Christianity is more similar to the god of Judaism than he is to the god of Islam remove the profound and ineradicable differences that exist between all of them. And it’s the profound differences, Q, that prevent us from finding a definition of “religion” that one and the same time is both general and substantive. We can of course build a compendious definition of “religion”, just as we can of “philosophy”, but we lose in utility what we gain in substance. We end up with a long grocery list sprinkled with qualifications.
Q – Why then do so many intelligent people think that these religions worship basically the same god?
A – Because at a high enough level of abstraction any two things can be made to seem the same. What do a pickle and a paper clip have in common?
Q – They have many things in common. They are both visible substances; they are both oval shaped; their names both start with “p”.
A – Well done, Q! And you could also have added that neither of them can ride a bicycle. Or to put it more positively, they are both bicycularly challenged.
Q – That’s a very wispy similarity.
A – Yes, and so are the ones you mentioned, even if not quite so wispy. Saying that the two objects are “substances”, “oval shaped” and “have names beginning with ‘p’” tells me little about the essential nature of the objects you seek to compare.
Q – However that may be, the three monotheistic religions I mentioned have substantially more in common than a pickle and a paper clip have. All three religions have canonical scriptures, a revered prophet or prophets, a system of ethical teaching, a way of salvation, and so forth. There are many substantive similarities.
A – I’m afraid that I can’t entirely agree, Q. The wispiness index is still very high in the alleged similarities you mention. Certainly there is much substantive overlap between the scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. Even so, the Hebrew Bible composes only about seventy-five percent of the Christian Bible. And the twenty-five percent difference, found in the New Testament, throws a new light on the whole. The Koran, being approximately the size of the New Testament, is radically different in content from both of them. Furthermore, if you look in detail at lives of the preeminent prophets of Islam and Christianity you will again see profound differences between them. And the same holds for their respective ways of salvation.
Q – But you’re emphasizing the differences and not saying much at all about the similarities.
P – That’s deliberate. And it’s because we are talking about the definition of “religion” in the title “Philosophy of Religion”. And I’m trying to point out the futility of attempting to form a general definition of “religion” that is both accurate and substantive. It’s the profound differences between the foundational elements of the religions that give those religions their distinctive character, and it’s these differences that frustrate any effort to form an inclusive definition that is both accurate and substantive. It is better not to try to include the foundational elements of all religions in the initial stage of an engaging definition, for it widens the field too much, causing one to make vague and implicitly untrue claims. Better, I think, to send the enquirer to a religion where first s/he can uncover its foundational assumptions and then apply philosophical thinking to them. After doing this with a number of religions there will no doubt be legitimate comparisons that can be made. But once again, it’s better not to attempt the comparisons at the initial stage of the engaging definition.
Q – If your approach is correct for defining “philosophy of religion”, why couldn’t it be used to define other sub-disciplines of philosophy? Words like “science” and “art” cause no end of definitional problems. Instead of thrashing about looking for the quintessential substance of all sciences, why not just define “philosophy of science” as “philosophical thinking applied to a science”, say, physics? You could then limit the scope of your investigation to “philosophical thinking applied to physics”. And you could do the same for art: philosophical thinking applied – not to art in general – but to an art, say, music; again limiting your investigation to “philosophical thinking applied to music”.
A – Very perceptive of you, Q! But our time is running out; we shall have to leave off discussing that until we meet again.
Q – Thank you, O sage of the northern prairie, for demuddifying my understanding.
A – Please, do not make fun of me. This is nearly serious business.

Conclusion: If you are asked what Philosophy of Religion is, don’t try to say everything at once. If you do you will find yourself either composing a very long definition that may be accurate but won’t be serviceable, or, settling for a shorter version that will quickly invite counter-examples. Begin instead with a short and grammatically correct definition that properly relates the two main ideas whose contents at first you keep indefinite. Then, with questions and answers, define the contents. You can begin by saying that it is a rational discipline in which philosophical thinking is applied to a religion. You can even leave off the first part, “a rational discipline in which”, if the context is agreeable to doing so. The short of it is this: “philosophical thinking applied to a religion”. If you have a penchant for parsimony you can shorten even further to “philosophical thinking about a religion”. You can then begin to fill it with accurate content by asking your audience, “What further questions do you have?”

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Thank you Steven Muir and Travis Dumsday for your helpful comments on the penultimate draft.